Is and Isn't: a context for Denzil Hurley

Is and Isn’t: a context for Denzil Hurley is a group exhibition that situates the work of the Barbadian American painter Denzil Hurley (1949-2021) within the discourses around abstraction that unfolded over the course of his career. The exhibition places Hurley’s work in relation to contemporaries David Diao, Harmony Hammond, Nancy Haynes, Harriet Korman, James Little, and John Zurier. It is rounded out by two artists who emerged more recently—Nikita Gale and Helen Mirra—along with the historical figure César Paternosto. As was the case for Hurley, each found their way towards personal expression via formal painting strategies in an era of post-minimal and conceptual art. Is and Isn’t: a context for Denzil Hurley runs in tandem with Denzil Hurley: To be pained is to have lived through feeling, an overview of the under-recognized artist’s paintings.

Guest curator Melissa E. Feldman has selected works by artists mainly based in California and New York, referencing aspects of Hurley’s reductivist practice and positioning his unconventional approach to painting. These range from Hammond’s feminist grids that employ household materials to Haynes’s and Zurier’s atmospheric monochromes and Diao’s analytical yet sumptuous paintings. Hurley, along with Little, belongs to a generation of Black abstract painters such as Sam Gilliam and Jack Whitten in search of a discipline that allowed for open-ended experimentation with process and materials. Little’s Plebian Math (2022) shows his radical layering technique that involves applying a thick white acrylic net across confetti-colored fields. Korman emerged in the 1970s with the feminist art movement but, like Little and Hurley, keeps politics out of the picture. Instead, the entanglements and joys of formalism interest her and she tackles them one by one—interiority, virtuosity, the sublime. A generation earlier, the Argentinian artist Paternosto invented successive alternatives to minimalism with a monolithic cutout painting from the 1990s series inspired by ancient Amerindian culture.

Bringing the investigation into the present, Is and Isn’t: a context for Denzil Hurley includes the work of two artists belonging to a younger generation. In her woven geometric soft sculptures, Mirra balances a minimalist foregrounding of materiality—albeit natural and handmade—with a systems-type conceptualism rooted in everyday routines. At the other extreme are Gale’s aggressive barricade style aluminum armatures threaded and wrapped with concrete dipped terry cloth strips. She turns gestural abstraction into a weapon—a three-dimensional metal grid woven with cloth calligraphy—pushing painting into the political fray.